I found my hostel pretty quickly, but ended up waiting while the "Pink Lady" (the name of the hostel that quickly became the pink-wearing receptionist's nickname). It was one of the most unusual check-ins I've had so far.
I was sharing a dorm with three guys - a Chinese fella who only spoke a little English, and two Canadians who I ended up hanging out with for the next day. We went to dinner (because I balked at the €3.50 per kilo apples at the grocery store) in the "Old Town," and later went to a hideously trashy tourist bar named Wayne's.
I wandered home on my own in the wee small hours - as always, getting lost along the way, but making it back eventually. The following day, after using the free internet at the Busabout hostel (shh...), I returned to the Pink Lady and decided to join Mike and Gad on their trip to Monaco. Though, as expected, it was just a chance to look at ridiculously expensive-looking yachts and swanky cars, and visit the toilets (free!) at the Casino, it was fun to visit a different, albeit very rich and rather random, quasi-country for the day.
The boys took a train back to Nice at around 2pm (they had a 5pm bus to Barcelona to catch), and I stayed in Monaco a little longer, visiting the Palace, and the cathedral where Grace Kelly is buried. I had to hang around the train station for 45 minutes for the train back to Nice, and filled in a little time by reading trashy magazines at a newsstand - until the owner told me off. While I was waiting on the platform, I realised that although I don't know much Italian - or at least not as much as I thought I would know after my course - but I realised that I know a little, because when the announcements came over the PA system, I couldn't understand a word in French, whereas in Italy I would get the general gist of it. It's the little things, but I'm proud.
When I got back to the Pink Lady, Gad and Mike were just collecting their bags, which turned out to be quite serendipitous as the Pink Lady (the woman) had to ask me to change rooms (not sure why), and Gad was able to translate for me. French Canadians. Bless 'em.
I cooked up a big bowl of pasta, resorting to veggies from a can (extortion at the Spar, I tell you!), but it was actually not too bad. That, or I was starving. After my late lunch/early dinner, I went to explore the seaside. There is an old castle (or was an old castle) at the eastern end of the beach, perched on a hill. The Chateau, though quite the climb (my poor calves still aching after Cinque Terre) made for a beautiful view. I stayed up there for quite a while, initially waiting for the sun to set, but then I discovered a fete - full of locals with food stalls, bars consisting of little more than a card table covered in a table cloth, and the usual jewellery stalls. There were three stages - one with an African theme, one middle Eastern, and one with young, French boys doing English rock'n'roll covers. I was one of very few tourists there, and it was fantastic.
Afterwards, I trudged down the hill, and walked along the promenade. There had been an Ironman race that day, and there were still some people heading for the finish line. Half of the main road was blocked off, and there was a huge crowd cheering them on, dancing along to music being pumped out of the PA system. It was very cool.
Though it felt as if my calves would never recover, I went for a nice little jog along the promenade the following morning. I think it may have actually done them some good in the long run. I snuck around the room, trying not to wake the others as I ate my breakfast and got my daypack sorted.
Mum and Dad had emailed and told me to call them at midday so that we could sort out our collective travel plans, so I spent the morning roaming the under-construction-for-three-years main drag, wandering in and out of shops, looking at things I couldn't afford to buy (be they too expensive or too heavy). At midday I called home, but - surprise surprise - they weren't home. I grudgingly paid the €0.20 for the two-second "call" I'd made (the phone beeped - money well spent), and then returned to the Hotel Anvers - where all the Busabout people were staying - for a little while before returning to the phone centre. I had a little tanty/break down on the phone. I think the three month mark seems to be my "cool-headed traveller" limit.
I spent the afternoon wandering some more - unintentionally, of course, as I didn't have a map and somehow couldn't find my way to the beach. When I eventually did find it, I was sufficiently hot and sweaty enough to warrant a swim in the Mediterranian. It was a strange experience - stumbling over the rocks, wearing thongs into the water in order to save my poor feet from their pointiness, and then finding myself somewhat more buoyant than usual. Either that, or my thongs were trying to float. I lay on the beach for a short time (the rocks can only be comfortable - a term I use loosely - for so long), finished my book (satisfied), and then headed slowly back to the hostel. After showering, I cooked up the rest of my pasta/sauce/vegetable mixture, and sat down to a huge meal. The perils of not having a kitchen at the next place.
Though there had been some suggestion of going to a pub trivia match, a group of us ended up going to the beach instead. About thirty Busabouters sat on the rocks, most of them drinking or eating gelati. It was really nice.
[Busabouters take over the beach in Nice]
Tuesday morning I got up early and was at the Hotel Anvers just on seven in order to check my email (more planning with Mum and Dad) before the bus left for Avignon at 8am. It turned out that only 7 of us were getting off in Avignon. Steve and Sophie, the English couple I met way back in Bruges, Dustin, a Canadian 20-year-old, and I were all sitting near each other on the bus, and got off together.
Dustin and I went into the Old Town of Avignon with Matt - a New Zealander I hadn't met before. We found our way to the touristy main drag, got some lunch (baguette with tomato, lettuce and brie - mmm), and then went to the tourist information office. From there we went to an internet cafe, where Matt and Dustin left me to book my flight to the UK. Once I'd done that I went up to the Palais Des Papes - the building in which seven twentieth century popes resided. There is quite the impressive statue on that building! The nearby park was also lovely - just the place to sit and read my newly-purchased "Harry Potter" (a last-minute attempt to catch up with the rest of the world).
[Palais Des Papes]
I ran along the Rhone the next morning, appreciating the grand ramparts and the seemingly half-finished Pont D'Avignon as I worked the last bits of stiffness out of my legs (bloody Cinque Terre!). We all met up for breakfast, and at 10am, everyone but Steve, Sophie and myself went off to take a ride through the local wineries. The three of us sat chatting for a while (English music festivals being an exciting topic), and then went our separate ways into town.
It seemed the entire city was having a sale. It was actually quite wird. I spent most of the day talking myself out of buying anything. I also returned to the Rocher Des Doms and my favourite bench to read for a while. Just before 5pm I arrived back at the hostel only to discover that my room was locked. Having not been given a key, I was not to impressed to hear it was a manditory lock out from 2pm to 5pm. Not that they'd told me about this anti-siesta... I was starving, hanging out for some mini-toasts and vegemite, so when I was finally let in at 5:20pm, I was getting a little antsy.
Matt, Dustin, Tim and Marissa returned from their "wine tasting tour" at about 6, and after another Happy Hour beer, we all went to the same restaurant we'd gone to the night before for dinner. Yet again it was a lovely evening, with lots of chatting (Matt's various outbursts about the French were pretty funny), and ended with a card trick that the next morning, six of us still didn't understand. We were all checked out by 10am, but the bus didn't come 'til 12:30, so we spent a couple of hours sitting by the river playing cards.
[The Pont D'Avignon on the Rhone]
Arriving in Barcelona, I set off straight away for my hostel, despearately needing to pee. The pressure of the hip-strap of my pack certainly wasn't helping! The street I was staying on - Passeig de Garcia - had me a little confused for a while. It is one of the main shopping precincts in Barcelona, and from the bus, I carried my pack past Cartier, Yves Saint Laurent and Gucci. I was a little bit worried I was at the wrong place when I arrived at #116, but on the third floor of a not-so-ritzy residential building was the Catolonia Hostel. I had just enough time to get changed, put my valuables in my locker, and send a quick couple of emails home (last minute requests - "am running low on vegemite") before I had to dash back down the road to the Busabout hostel, where I met Marissa and Tim, along with two of their friends (who they'd met on a Contiki trip and were also now on Busabout) and we all headed out in search of dinner.
We all seemed to be on the lookout for Tapas, but most looked quite expensive, despite our best efforts to find the "dodgy back alleys." In the end, hunger caused us to settle on a Sizzler-esque buffet place. Not exactly the typical Spanish meal we were going for, but the piles of food we all consumed and the free glass of wine went down a treat. After dinner, we wandered around, finding ourselves at the Columbus Monument before heading back up La Rambla in search of a cheap bar. One Irish and one Aussie bar later (menus looked at, but not a drop drunk), we gave up on our mission, and headed to our respective homes. The fact that the sun had set so late, and we'd eaten dinner so late had me all confused, and I didn't realise quite how late it was when I got back to the hostel. Barcelona is quite the night owl!
On Friday morning I ran around the streets and alleyways of downtown Barcelona, as the nearest park was quite a treck. It ended up being quite nice - passing little grocers and bakeries early in the morning.
After breakfast, I went to the Busabout hostel to see what everyone else was doing, but they all seemed to be either going shopping or going to the beach. With my nerdy list of things I wanted to do/see in Barcelona spilling out of my Lonely Planet, I decided I'd best go it alone. Two days didn't seem enough time to see everything!
Quite the treck to the north east, and I found myself at Gaudi's Sagrada Familia. Just when I thought I was sick of churches, along came the mother of all churches - that is one crazy, amazing, beautiful building.
Once I'd finished gawking at the - apparently - half-finished, and still very much in the process of being constructed building (watching the builders go about their work was odd), I walked up to the Parc Guell. Though I wasn't entirely sure I was going the right way, I found the park much sooner than anticipated, and spent a few hours there exploring, admiring and taking photos of Gaudi's next most famous work of art. To think that he designed these things in the early twentieth century is a little mind blowing. He was certainly ahead of his time.
I spent my "siesta" at the hostel, chilling out, reading and just enjoying being out of the sun!At around 6, I walked down La Rambla again, wandering the alleyways of the El Raval area, and occasionally finding myself back on La Rambla with its many and varied street performers. My favourite was the "tourist," with his socks and sandles and big video camera.
I spent quite some time at the Market la Boqueria - a very busy, quite impressive fresh fruit/veg and meat market. The atmosphere was so lively, it's hard to believer it's open 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. The sheeps' heads - eyeballs and all - were pretty disturbing, though, and I tried to keep away from the meat and seafood section. On my way back to the hostel, I popped into a cafe, somewhere near the Busabout hostel, and enjoyed my first Spanish specialty - hot chocolate and churros. The hot chocolate was thick, the churros (basically stick-like donuts) oily, and my arteries may never be the same, but it was pretty good stuff.
[Hot chocolate and churros - heart attack on a plate... and in a cup]
The hostel was - like the rest of the city - only just getting started by the time midnight came and went, but with the aid of my earplugs, and a little bit of exhaustion thrown in for good measure, I was out like a light. The next morning I had a freezing cold shower (why does this always seem to be the case when I have to wash my hair?!), a leisurely breakfast, and then spent a few hours uploading photos onto the net for Tiffany to burn onto a CD for me at home. The things I'll do to save €4.
I'd read that there were art markets near La Rambla on Saturdays, but I was a little disappointed to be honest.
On my way to the Olympic Village area, I stopped in the Ciutadella Park and had a great little quasi-siesta in the shade of a nice, big tree. I read my book, lay there a while, and basically did nothing. It was great.
[my siesta in the Ciutadella Park]
The area near the Olympic Village seemed all but desserted (post-siesta ghost tow), until I arrived at Port Olimpic and found the throngs of people on the many big, sandy beaches in the area. I awlked along the boardwalk at La Barceloneta for a while, cursing myself for not having brought my swimmers! I walked through La Barceloneta on my way back to La Rambla, and really enjoyed it - a little way off the tourist trail, and feeling a little more authentically Spanish.
Before I forget to mention it - I realised quite quickly that Barcelona smelled somewhat familiar and soon put my finger on it - Thailand. The slightly cringe-worthy smell of stagnant water and rotting vegetables. Must be something to do with the heat.
Back at La Rambla, I returned to the market, bought some fruit (grapes, on the advice of the woman at the fruit stall, which were delicious), and then sat at the Placa de Catalunya for a while, reading and people-watching. On my return to the hostel, I had some dinner, caught up on my diary, read some more, packed my pack and just generally did very little. It was nice.
The trip to Madrid was pretty unexciting. We stopped through Valencia briefly, where I had some paella for lunch. Mmm.
When we arrived in Madrid, I headed straight out to see the Palacio Real and the very manicured surrounding gardens, and then to El Retiro and the even prettier gardens. There were some pretty cool buskers along the side of the Estanque, including clowns and marrionette puppets. The view across to the Monument to Alfonso XII in the lowering light was quite nice.
[View from my hostel room. I call it "Late Night Boredom in Madrid."]
The next morning I ran back to the park, spending the first half of the run with my iPod off because it was still dark (!) and I'd heard that Madrid was a little sketchy.
Then it was back on the bus - again - and off to San Sebastian.
On the way, we stopped in Burgos for lunch - a pretty little city with a big, gothic cathedral. It was also a little dramatic when the bus was pulled over. Apparently a fairly common occurrance with Busabout, but a first for me. Everyone pulled on their seatbelts quickly as the policemen boarded the bus - except for me, the big nerd who wears her seatbelt all the time.
It took a while to check in at the "Urban House," and once I was checked in I went off in search of a grocery store. Buying fruit and veggies was intimidating, what with my inability to speak Spanish and my tendency to attempt words in Italian, but the nice grocer put up with me and I eventually got my campinons and... other veggies.
After a big, fat, carrot-less salad for dinner, I headed back ou tto explore the city a little. The river by night was really pretty.
The following morning I went for a lovely run along the beach. Although I've run along quite a few beaches in Europe, this was the first beach that actually felt like a real beach - the waves were making plenty of sea spray, and the sand was sandy!
After breakfast, I went for a walk up the Monte Urgull Parque, with its giant statue of Jesus. It was a little chilly (in my skirt, singlet and swimmers - optimistically), but after 15 minutes of trecking up the hill to see the giant Jesus aerial [see below], I was a little toastier.
[the cloudy view across San Sebastian]
I went looking for the laundromat, but at €6 for an 8kg load of washing, I took all my dirty clothes back to the hostel.
It wasn't warm enough to go swimming, so I went wandering through the shops instead - right on siesta. Clever. But some stores were still open, and I was entertained for a while.
I had an early dinner, read some more Harry Potter (it's addictive), and then spent the night sitting around with some othre people from the hostel, chatting and playing cards.
Wednesday morning was spent stuffing around - checking emails, etc, and waiting for a reasonable hour to head to Bilbao and my flight to the UK (at 9pm!). An English-speaking country for the first time in three months. I'm excited!